A triple option is an offensive play in American football. As implied by its name, it allows the team three different ways to gain yardage via the fullback, quarterback or wingback/halfback/running back.
Defending this play can be difficult, as three different players can receive the ball, and as a practical matter the defense cannot prevent any of them from getting it. (However, they can make it unwise for certain players to receive the ball at a price). Moreover, the defense's limited vision means that the ball could be in any of three places at one time.
Nevertheless, the triple option is rarely used in the professional National Football League. NFL linebackers are scary beasts very big and very fast and they can overcome the triple option's blocking scheme and bust up the play. In collegiate football, however, a significant minority of teams will use the triple option, and at the high school level the majority of teams run it as their base offense.
Before we break into the fun ASCII art: There's a million different ways to run the triple option. I'll use the double-wing formation as the main example, because it really gets to the essence of the play, even if it's a formation that's rarely used nowadays. Other popular formations are the wishbone and I formation; I'll get to those later on.
Triple Option Double Wing Style!
/me realizes this sounds like bad anime
LB DE DT DT DE
SE TE LT LG C RG RT
WB Q WB
Defense is on the top; offense is on the bottom.
FS = free safety | SS = strong safety | CB = cornerback
LB = linebacker | DE = defensive end | DT = defensive tackle
* = football, to be snapped by the center
SE = split end | TE = tight end | LT = left tackle | LG = left guard
C = center | RG = right guard | RT = right tackle
WB = wingback | | Q = quarterback | FB = fullback
First off, a "wingback" is kind of like the more commonly seen halfback. Halfbacks usually line up around the fullback, however.
Now, we're going to run a triple option to the left side. The three options for the offense are, in order: (1) Fullback carries the ball; (2) Quarterback carries the ball; (3) Quarterback pitches the ball to the far-side wingback.
See if you can comprehend this horrible diagram:
/ SS CB
# / _#-------LB LB
| | /
| | | LB DE DT DT DE
| | \ # #* # #
SE |? TE \LT LG C RG RT
^ WB \----?-------Q WB
| \_____ /
\ \FB /
? = decisions
# = blocks
^ = kinda run that way
The FB (fullback) takes a slanted pattern. The QB (quarterback) takes the snap, and then runs a collision course with him at the "?" symbol. Then, the QB puts the ball into the FB's chest always. He reads the left-side LB (linebacker); if the LB is moving toward the FB (as he must), then the QB will snatch the ball away from the FB. Otherwise, he'll just leave it there and let the fullback run ahead. This is option one.
The QB will continue to run along his path even if he doesn't have the ball, just to fool the defense. But let's pretend that he keeps the ball. He turns up the page, a little, and then has his second choice. He can keep the ball himself or pitch the ball that is, throw a lateral to the WB (wingback) who ran all the way from the right side of the field. These are options two and three.
Additional blocking assignments: I couldn't fit them all in the ASCII picture. The TE (tight end) will go up and to his right to block the DE (defensive end). That's right, the poor DE has two dudes blocking him. It has to be this way, though, because the offense must seal off the defensive line from following the play to the left. Plus, they have to create a path for the FB.
The left-most WB also has a seal-off block: he must run upfield and take on the middle linebacker (LB). This guy has a very important block if the WB cannot make it consistently, the triple option simply will not work, as there will be as many free defensive players as there are offensive options. (In the NFL, the LBs can obliterate WBs, so options don't work well in that league.)
What about the left-most LB (who starts the play near the TE)? He gets the LG (left guard). The guard steps back (downward) from the line of scrimmage, running ahead of the QB and around the TE, and seal-blocks the LB. (This is commonly called pulling a guard.) The LG's block is also important, for if the LB breaks free the QB will get his butt kicked.
As for the SS (strong safety) and the FS (free safety): Nobody is blocking them. The SS is near enough to make a tackle, but that is why the QB can pitch the ball. If the SS runs towards the QB, then the QB throws the ball to the WB. Otherwise, he'll keep it himself. The FS is unblocked and free to make the tackle, but he starts so far away from the play that by the time he gets there, the offense will already have 10 yards. Also, the FS has to worry about the option pass, which I'll get to later.
Using the fullback: Every now and then, the offense has to give the ball to the FB, even if the LB seems to have that play covered. Fullbacks are big and strong, and they can often break the tackle of the linebacker. Moreover, if the fullback can break free, it really screws up a defense. The middle LB (the guy who goes against the WB), the SS and the FS are the only ones who can catch a runaway fullback, and if they're worried about him, they cannot focus their energies on stopping the other two parts of the option.
What do you need to run the triple option? A quick, smart quarterback; fast wingbacks who are strong enough to block linebackers; and offensive linemen who block well and don't mess up. It's helpful to have at least three wingbacks, because they'll get tired quick and will need to be rotated.
How can a defense stop it? First, the defense cannot make any mistakes. This offense is flexible enough to find a blown assignment and exploit it. Second, a defends wants to string out the option that is, make it go toward the sideline. Deny the fullback the ball and force the pitch to the wingback. Then, at least, you know the offense's options are used up. Third, badass linebackers and safeties help a lot. A big, fast, punishing safety can ring a QB's bell before he can pitch it.
Who runs the triple option? A few college football teams will use this formation the Air Force Academy and Rice University are two I can think of. Both teams have quick quarterbacks, strong offensive lines and a strong corps of wingbacks. The University of Nebraska is kind of a hybrid option team; they'll run about 10 per game, but they'll use the I formation, not the double-wing. Likewise, other I-formation teams who happen to have fast quarterbacks (i.e., Virginia Tech) will run an option every now and then.
1. I formation
SE TE LT LG C RG RT SE
The HB (halfback) takes the place of the wingback in the triple option. The fullback will run between the LG and the C. This option is better for pitching, as the HB doesn't have as circuitous a route as in the double-wing formation. However, there is no SE near the TE to help with blocking.
SE TE LT LG C RG RT
See why this is called a wishbone? The Q, FB and two HBs kind of look like one, don't they?
Like the double-wing, this formation is pretty old-school. There aren't as many passing opportunities as in the double-wing with the split ends, but as in the I formation, the offense can run many up-the-middle plays like traps, counter-gaps and what have you.
3. Double-wing Option Pass
| | /
| | / ?-------FS
| CB /
| | SS CB
| | -------LB LB
| | LB DE DT DT DE
| | *
SE | TE LT LG C RG RT
WB --------Q WB
This play can be freakin' deadly.
All the other offensive players act like this is a regular option. The fullback does not get the ball, and the quarterback suddenly runs backward go get some room.
There's three passing options for the quarterback: The leftmost SE, the leftmost WB and the rightmost WB, who follows his route as if he were to get an option pitch. He's pretty much a safety valve for the QB.
The QB is really looking to throw deep, especially to the leftmost WB. He kinda bounces off the middle linebacker (who he should be blocking in a regular option) and runs a long pattern. The SS won't cover him, because he's already run forward and is in no-man's land. Therefore, the FS must cover the WB. But remember back to the regular triple option the FS was one of the few unblocked players and is keen to stop the running play. If he doesn't realize that an option pass is being run, it will almost definitely be an instant touchdown for the offense.
ESPN overview article: http://espn.go.com/ncf/columns/davie/1447132.html